Testimony of UFT President Michael Mulgrew before the New York City Council Committee on Education
Good afternoon Speaker Johnson, Chairman Treyger and members of the Education Committee. Thank you for inviting me to appear before you today to offer our assessment and collective insights into Fair Student Funding.
My colleagues at the United Federation of Teachers are committed to providing support to our extraordinary teaching force, whom I am honored and privileged to represent, as well as our school communities, which we fight for every day. Today, we advocate for them because we face a number of troubling issues with regard to the funding of our public schools, and I want to address those concerns at this forum.
The reality is this: Fair Student Funding is anything but fair.
On paper, it probably sounded great, but in reality, the so-called “weights” assigned to the various needs of children aren’t at all consistent or realistic.
Per-pupil funding often does not provide equitable or adequate funding, and the exacting nature of a child’s dollar “value” essentially locks schools into decision making that may not work for the needs of that student. We see time and time again that students are shortchanged. When the weights for programs and services are inadequate, it is unrealistic to assume that schools can fully support students or raise student achievement.
As part of this testimony, I will provide some on-the-ground context and real-world consequences for how funding policies play out in our schools, as well as brief descriptions of some possible solutions for your consideration.
We appreciate that the Council is shining a spotlight on this issue, and we want to learn more about Resolution 569, which we understand would give poverty much greater weight in the Fair Student Funding formula.
We also support greater transparency efforts on this issue, and it is our strong hope that teachers’ voices will be a large part of the proposed task force outlined in Local Law 1174. We also look forward to an ongoing discussion on how proposed Local Law 1014-A will dovetail with the fiscal transparency requirements passed last year in Albany.
An important investment
Six months ago, Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Johnson announced a special $125 million-dollar school aid investment to ensure that every school receives at least 90 percent of the Fair Student Funding that it is supposed to receive. The move helped more than 850 schools in all five boroughs and nearly half of the students in our system.
Said Chancellor Carranza after the announcement, “More funding means more teachers, guidance counselors, and social workers; more professional development; and an opportunity to bring new materials and technologies into the classroom. The increase of the FSF floor is an important step in putting our schools on a path to Equity and Excellence for all, and to addressing unacceptable and historical inequities in the way our schools have been funded.” He’s exactly right.
The UFT fully supported the move as a major step in the right direction, not only because our schools desperately needed the funding, but also because it began to raise public awareness about the shortfalls of the Fair Student Funding formulas themselves.
A problematic beginning
The idea behind Fair Student Funding came from the “education reformers” more than a decade ago who subscribed to a business model - the “widget” approach - where each school would be treated like a fast food franchise instead of as part of a system.
Their thinking was flawed from the start. They designed a cost-based system that attached a dollar amount to each student, using a standardized list of costs for teachers, guidance counselors, secretaries and so on. Every student was assigned a base amount of funding, which they claimed would ensure an equitable distribution of instructional resources and redistribute experienced teachers to high-need schools.
When faced with the fact that children come through our doors with their own unique educational circumstances, the FSF designers also attempted to create a series of weights to attach extra funding to a particular child, based on their needs. Students who are ELLs would get more funding, for example. Students with special needs would as well.
Once each student had been assigned a dollar amount, a computer program added up the total value of a student population and developed a budget for each school. That amount was turned over to principals, who hired teachers and staff, paid for programs and services, and purchased textbooks, technology and classroom materials.
A recent look at Fair Student Funding by the Independent Budget Office found that last school year New York City schools faced a shortfall of $491 million, leaving 1,199 (78 percent) of the 1,533 schools that receive Fair Student Funding with smaller grants then they qualified for under the funding formula.
That’s consistent with the stories about chronic underfunding we hear all the time from teachers and administrators, especially when it comes to special education.
Underfunding is a result of using the Fair Student Funding formulas because while a school may have a group of students who need a special education teacher, therapist or another service provider to work with them, the amount of money the school receives for that group of students often isn’t enough to cover the cost of hiring that person or securing that service.
When that happens, the school has difficult choices to make. If the school is extremely lucky, maybe they have a sympathetic superintendent or an understanding ear at Tweed who will find them a little extra money. More often than not, though, they are forced to remove money from other departments or programs. The worst-case scenario is students don’t get their needs met because the school can’t afford the staff member or the service.
What’s more, the whole Fair Student Funding system is based on subjecting schools to a schoolwide average salary, as opposed to a citywide average salary. The DOE is computing 1,800 different averages for its schools.
What that means is that schools that create great working environments and successfully retain teachers can be penalized by the FSF formula, because veteran teachers cost more than newer teachers, and schools with higher costs have less flexibility in their budgets.
For example, if a school’s average salary is $75,000, and the school hires a new teacher at $60,000, the school essentially gets $15,000. On the other hand, if that same school hires a new teacher with a $90,000 salary, it’s penalized because extra funding must be pulled from another area to cover the additional cost.
That means differences in average teacher salaries often translates into differences in purchasing power – and by extension the number of programs and services available to students. Experienced teachers become an unintended budget liability as a result. It also means principals can be forced to make staffing decisions based on cost as opposed to the quality of candidates or the needs of the school. These misleading averages serve as just one more barrier preventing proper school staffing.
In addition, penalties sometimes take affect at times that seriously hurt schools' ability to function. If a school were to suddenly experience an unexpected dip in registration, or have a large number of students move, the school must pay back the allotment for those children.
Cardozo High School in Bayside Queens has 3,700 students, strong academics and a dedicated staff.
With the Mayor and City Council’s efforts, Cardozo’s funding this year is 90 percent of its Fair Student Funding mark, up from about 87 percent.
But even with that increase students have been shortchanged, staff argue.
Juniors and seniors are offered basic core subjects but not much more. After-school clubs and tutoring have been cut; the math team eliminated; math and science research courses ended. Current teachers will teach extra courses because it is cheaper than hiring additional staff.
The school used to offer science classes five days a week with a lab. It now offers science classes four days a week, plus a lab. Cardozo has cut guidance counselors and has fewer librarians and deans than a school this size needs.
“A couple years ago our senior students staged a protest march because of cuts to Advanced Placement classes. They were passionate, but it didn’t restore the classes, and each year we lose more ground,” said Dino Sferrazza, a social studies teacher and UFT chapter leader at the school. “We’ve cut support for students who need extra help. We’ve eliminated AP courses. We need more guidance counselors, librarians. We need working radios. We are a good school, but we need to be treated fairly. We’re not, and you can never get a straight answer on why.”
Leon M. Goldstein High School in Brooklyn has an experienced and a talented team of teachers dedicated to their students and school. That should be seen as a bonus. But in the backwards world of NYC public school funding, a group of experienced teachers who want to stay at a particular school is a liability.
“It is an insane system. Most people would think you would build in incentives to keep experienced staff. But here, there is a disincentive to do that,” said Mike Schirtzer, a social studies teacher at the high performing school. “If we put students first, the budget would be simple – we will give you funds for one teacher for so many children.”
Instead class sizes hit the caps, after-school programs get sliced and the number of guidance counselors and social workers dwindles.
The principal of the school, Scott Hughes, when asked why his school consistently faces budgetary squeezes, offered a hypothetical story to illustrate the school’s current reality. “In the current funding formula, if a clone of Goldstein High School existed on the other side of Sheepshead Bay, where the amount and needs of the students were identical, and the other school had the same exact type of staffing – with 60 teachers overall and where the only difference was that in the other school the average teacher salary was just $5,000 less than our school’s average teacher salary, the other school would have an additional $300,000 they could use to support the identical group of students (with additional staff, tutoring/after school opportunities, etc.). …Many parents assume that as we are a both a high performing school and a school with 50 percent of our students being economically disadvantaged that we must be awash with money – and this simply isn’t the case.”
The Cinema High School in the Bronx has a unique four-year film program infused into all of the schools’ academic programs. The approach is working – last year’s four-year graduation rate was 96 percent, some 20 points above the NYC average.
Yet because budget projections did not match the number of actual incoming students, the school was short necessary funds, and so vital staff was excessed – let go.
A social studies teacher was excessed; a single teacher is responsible for the physical education instruction of more than 300 students. The school is also missing vital equipment for its film program and is in need of replacing aging technology for all of their classes.
The loss of staff affects teaching assignments and makes implementing the school’s new Advanced Placement offerings as part of the Mayor’s AP For All program more difficult. And most devastating to the school’s mission as The Cinema School, the film department leader may eventually need to switch to teaching English courses instead of sharing his 20 years of film experience.
“The kids deserve the funding. If a kid comes to school, the courses and services should be there. What we have now is a crazy bureaucratic mismatch. This system must work for the accountants, but certainly doesn’t work for students,” said Bill Linville, a math teacher who offers AP statistics at the Cinema School for the first time ever. “We need to get this funding problem figured out. A high school called The Cinema School needs to provide the full range of film courses," he said.
As you can see, the real price of FSF is paid for by the students who lose programs and resources.
The designers of Fair Student Funding attempted to redistribute resources from so-called “over-funded” schools to under-funded schools, shifting resources to schools serving high-need students. But the fundamental flaw with that thinking was a failure to recognize that most of our public schools are Title I schools. In fact, more than 700,000 students — overwhelmingly African-American and Hispanic — attend the 1,265 city schools where Title 1 funds help defray the costs of teachers, guidance counselors, aides and administrators.
Fair Student Funding essentially takes money away from some high-needs students and giving it to others. What that meant is if you were a Title I school that had made some progress in retaining veteran teachers, lowering your class sizes and bringing in special programs and services for your students, you were penalized for your progress and saw some of that money redirected to other schools.
Lack of oversight
One of the biggest goals put forward by the so-called reformers was the empowerment of principals in the budget process. Because the process has been anything but transparent, our schools continue to be vulnerable to poor decisions.
Principals use their flexibility to come up with strategies to gain purchasing power and attrition savings.
Some do so in pursuit of noble goals. Some administrators whose schools desperately need programs and services or building upgrades can game the system and hire inexperienced educators to keep salary costs down and use funding elsewhere.
Unfortunately, some administrators are known to use that same strategy, so they can pay for their own staffers and pet projects at the expense of other unmet needs in the building. These administrators might feel budgetary pressure to target senior teachers with discipline or unfair evaluations. Some principals have also deliberately bypassed their School Leadership Teams, which should have a hand in creating school budgets.
No matter what their motives, though, these strategies put our students at a disadvantage. And all of this is possible because there are few rules in place and little oversight of school budgets. One of the only protections are class size limits set by the UFT contract. Without those rules, you would certainly see classrooms of 40 to 50 students.
School budgeting should fund equity for the highest-need students; create a level playing field for all schools; deliver on the promises of transparency and simplicity; and preserve essential staff positions. That begins with a formula that drives funding to the needs of the students, instead of trying to fit all students' needs into a formula.
1. A CORE STAFFING FOUNDATION
At a minimum, every school should have a basic staff allocation – a core foundation – of teachers and other staff. That means a teacher for every set number of students, created using student-to-teacher ratios to achieve class sizes stipulated in the UFT contract. Every school must have a guidance counselor for every set number of students, a nurse, a secretary, a librarian, a social worker and so on. It also makes sense to create incentives for principals who retain experienced educators rather than punish them budgetarily.
2. USE REAL SALARIES
Schools should receive the actual cost of the staff member they employ so the budget disadvantage is removed from the equation. There should never be a budget loss or penalty to a school when a higher-salaried teacher is hired. That may also require the dollar amounts for student weights to be increased.
3. FUND EVERY SCHOOL AT 100 percent
Schools should know that they’re getting the funding needed, and that begins with every school receiving 100 percent of the formula. Schools can always make the case to receive more funding, and we certainly have schools that need an extra boost, but no school should receive more to the detriment of another.
4. MORE OVERSIGHT
The UFT wholeheartedly supports the legislation under consideration today to increase reporting on school budgeting. As it stands now, there’s a lack of transparency and data on how money is spent. Right now, schools are left to their own devices and DOE budget approvals are largely pro forma.
5. EMPOWER School Leadership Teams
We are once again calling on the DOE to commit to more meaningful participation of School Leadership Teams as it relates to school budging. Too many times, school administrators improperly engage the members of School Leadership Teams in the creation of Comprehensive Educational Plans, or in reviewing school budgets. Most School Leadership Teams hardly discuss budget issues at meetings except to occasionally vote on funding new supplies or a school project.
What’s more, even though School Leadership Team members are entitled to see a copy of the school budget, principals will rarely distribute them unless it is specifically requested by a parent or a UFT member. As a result, School Leadership Teams cannot effectively carry out their obligation to ensure that the school administration’s allocation of scarce resources align with the goals of the School Leadership Team. It should be mandatory that a copy of the school budget be distributed and discussed at the beginning and end of the school year.
Taking it a step further, School Leadership Teams should have a budget report as a permanent agenda item at all meetings, and all School Leadership members need training on how to read a school budget, and how different funds may be allocated. This will allow for more transparency in how school funding is used, an will ensure a true collaboration on the school budget process that includes all members of the School Leadership Team. When people come together to create a budget with different points of view, the school creates a powerful way to improve the outcome.
At the macro level, a steering committee is needed – management, labor, elected officials, advocates and outside education finance experts – to monitor and measure the formulas and recalibrate them when necessary.
If New York City is to continue with Fair Student Funding, let’s take this opportunity to make much-needed modifications so it is based on honest and true cost factors and so it doesn’t have a disparate impact on the high-need communities it sets out to help. We can look at the issues facing school administrators, teachers and leadership teams. This base of knowledge can serve as the perfect platform to improve a system with the potential to significantly expand the educational opportunities for the city’s children. We have all the tools we need to fix these problems if we work together. Not taking the time to revise this program now amounts to something worse than unfair funding; it will lead to the profound loss of resources for children who need them the most.